Mexican cuisine currently has South Africans salivating, as its flavours and flair steadily sweep through the nation. It is so popular that in 2016, Famous Brands – of Mugg & Bean, Wimpy, Debonairs and Steers fame – acquired a 51% controlling stake in Fourways’ Salsa Mexican Grill to get a jump start on what is sees as the next big thing in the South African fast-casual restaurant environments.
Restaurateurs John and Lyn Davis spotted the same gap in the market back in 2014 when they opened Picasso’s Mexican Taqueria in the small, scenic Mpumalanga town of White River. In a market where restaurants come and go, Picasso’s took the Lowveld by storm. “Mexican is the new Italian,” says Lyn, adding that they have medium-term plans to open more restaurants.
Ironically, it was an eatery on the gorgeous Greek island of Naxos that inspired the couple to open Picasso’s. They had been holidaying on the island for years and one of their favourite spots was Picasso on the Beach – a casual Mexican restaurant known for its icy cocktails and tasty tacos.
Owners Stratos and Debbie Perakis embraced the idea of opening a sister restaurant in South Africa and the same casual-dining formula was applied. Instead of a beach, the White River Picasso’s has a sweeping view of the countryside. Both restaurants pride themselves on inviting, feel-at-home decor and are known for long, leisurely meals.
The Mexican Embassy’s Third Secretary: Trade Affairs, Javier Magaña, confirms that they have seen an increase in Mexican-inspired restaurants in South Africa. “But in most cases, they do not serve authentic Mexican food,” he says.
The growing Mexican food trend is also reflecting in tequila imports. Export figures from Mexico to South Africa between 2014 and 2016 have shown steady growth, says Julian Salazar Dominguez of ProMéxico, a Mexican government institution in charge of strengthening Mexico’s participation in the international economy. In 2o14, 1 164 778 litres were imported. This grew in 2015 to 1 245 841 litres and 1 405 798 litres in 2016.
As with any Mexican restaurant worth its salt – and lime – Picasso’s stocks a wide range of tequilas and John is quick to point out that the 100% genuine agave variety is definitely not hangover material.
Its food is authentic too, with home-made churros, jalapeño poppers and tortillas. “I think our fajitas are among the best in the world,” says Lyn, an experienced traveller who has tasted Mexican food not only in Mexico, but wherever her travels take her. “Menus cannot be static; they must evolve and remain fresh,” she says.
This and Picasso’s insistence on local produce straight from local farmers are the secrets to the restaurant’s success. New to the menu is taco campechano, which is a mix of pork, beef and pork crackling. “This was one of the discoveries we made on a recent trip to Mexico,” says Lyn.
Greek-inspired quesadillas, filled with pulled pork and crackling, red onions, parsley and three cheeses – feta, mozzarella and white cheddar, are also gaining momentum.
Another trend in South Africa is food trucks, which lend themselves particularly well to Mexican street food, which is easy to eat yet can be beautifully prepared. Luca Castiglione, formerly chef-owner of Italian restaurant Limoncello, was one of the first food truck pioneers. He now runs Cape Town Food Trucks. “Food trucks have taken over at events,” he says. “When I started around five years ago, there were only a few food trucks in Cape Town. Now there are around 40.”
Picasso’s will be introducing its food truck to the public at the Lowveld Book Festival at the Casterbridge Lifestyle Centre in White River from 18-20 August 2017.
“Our menu will consist of tacos, quesadillas, chimichangas, nachos, churros and, of course, our famous frozen drinks,” says Lyn.
Don’t miss it!
– Picasso’s Mexican Taqueria